One of the things I’ve always liked about folk music is its capacity for energy. The variety of different instruments encourages a nuanced sound that always amazes me. It isn’t hard to see why people connect with the sound so much, whether they’re hearing it through their headphones or in the moment at a live show.
Few modern folk bands exemplify this energy with quite the same fervor as Mountain Heart. A bluegrass and soul-influenced band from Nashville, Mountain Heart doesn’t shy away from the connectable energy that comes out of folk music. Depending on the song, the band will amp up the genre to a new level of intensity, dial it back to allow for heavier moments, or maneuver it into creative and genre-bending new territory.
“Other genres can be compartmentalized, if that’s the right word,” said lead singer Josh Shilling in an interview with the Daily. “You have to be a certain age, look a certain way.” With folk and Americana, though, “artists are allowed to be themselves.”
“Your fan base will age with you, and allow you to age,” Shilling said.
In this way Americana is resistant to the idea of a musical “shelf life,” finding its appeal more in a “grassroots following that doesn’t have anything to do with the radio … it’s not a pop culture thing, it’s a thing that people connect to for life.”
This type of flexibility allows for a lot of artistic exploration, and Mountain Heart takes full advantage of this, doing a good job of not pigeonholing itself into one genre. Shilling personally sings “more soulful stuff,” even though he was “born into bluegrass” near the Blue Ridge Mountains area of Virginia. The other band members were “initially huge into bluegrass,” Shilling said. “Molly (Cherryholmes) … grew up in a band, basically lived on a tour bus, playing with her family band called The Cherryholmes. She’s kind of been around the bluegrass world her entire life, since birth … but loves soul music.”
Shilling went on to explain how Aaron Ramsey, a more traditional bluegrass singer, sang “Maggie’s Farm,” a Bob Dylan cover included on their new album.
“Jeff, our bass player, also sings incredibly well,” Shilling said, “and everybody onstage switches instruments, too. On our albums, literally, there will be banjo, and then there will be Hammond B-3 organ, and then there’s an accordion and piano, mixed with mandolin and fiddle. So it’s very eclectic and unusual in that regard.”
All in all, the musicians of Mountain Heart are influenced by artists as diverse as Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Darryl Scott and The Allman Brothers.
“We really just try to do what we love,” Shilling said.
This variety in musical taste comes together as a fusion of something new in the band’s music, and it can also lead them into unexpected territory in terms of songwriting. Shilling recounted a recent experience in which the entire band worked together to write a song, which he describes as a “Crosby-Stills-Nash throwback.”
“You have to wade through four or five opinions, and four or five brains like mine that never stop,” Shilling said, but ultimately the band came up with a new song called “Restless Wind.”
“I would’ve never gotten such a beautiful piece of music on my own,” Shilling said.
Their new 2016 album, Blue Skies was written with the idea of playing it live in mind.
“We tried to record things that could be a set list,” Shilling said, referencing songs from the album like “Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “Have You Heard About the Old Hometown” and the titular track, “Blue Skies.” He hinted that the band will play many of these songs this weekend when they perform live at The Ark, on Saturday.
Just as the songs from Blue Skies lend themselves to live performances, so, in a way, does venue of The Ark. Shilling is excited to get back to the notable folk venue, where Mountain Heart has played several times before, and where, he said, there is a “type of accessible energy” that isn’t often found outside of festival environments.
“The crowd is not just subdued, they’re wide open,” Shilling said. “It’s very exciting for us, to be in a venue where people are so electric like that.”
Part of this might come from The Ark’s location far north of bluegrass's origins.
“In the southeast, for instance,” Shilling said, “bluegrass music, and folk music, and acoustic music, are everywhere, and it’s really, really saturated … but it’s a little different from when you’re in New York City, or when you’re in Minneapolis or when you’re in Ann Arbor. Those people just absolutely love it. It almost seems like they need it, you know, or maybe they don’t get that kind of music often. I really feel like the support we get is just amazing in that part of the country (the North).”
Mountain Heart also shares a unique tie with The Ark in that they recorded an entire live album there, The Road that Never Ends, in 2007.
“That process was amazing, because we played for like four hours,” Shilling said. “We’d play, you know, for thirty minutes, and then mess something up. So we’d stop the song and tell the audience what happened, and then start the song over, because we were recording it!”
He explained how that 4 hour-long show was edited to become The Road that Never Ends, and added: “We’d actually love to record again there.”
Knowing the band’s history with The Ark, it is no surprise that they are excited to come back this weekend.
“At The Ark, you see people who really, really get it, who really support it,” Shilling said. “We have friends who come from all over there … it’s just really special, it’s kind of like a family reunion.”
This will be Mountain Heart’s first time at The Ark “with the project in hand,” meaning their new album. They will be selling copies of Blue Skies, as well as newly designed Mountain Heart tee shirts. This show is “one of the highlights of (the band’s) year,” according to Shilling, and it will be followed by many more exciting venues: Later this year, they plan to perform in Roanoke, Virginia (near where Shilling grew up), and in Flagstaff, Arizona, as well as at the world-famous MerleFest in North Carolina.
If Blue Skies is any indication of what the audience can expect this Saturday, it will be a show full of layered emotion and energy. The connection that people feel with music through songwriting and live performances is “kind of the reason we all didn’t decide to put on a suit and tie and go get a desk job,” Shilling said. This commitment to the power of music is not unfamiliar to Mountain Heart, nor, it seems, to anyone who has seen them live in the past, whether at The Ark or elsewhere.
With the power of live music, “you get to make people happy, even if it’s just for a short time,” Shilling said.